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A Talk on the Wild Side.

How to Successfully Save an 800-pound Leatherback Turtle

By Stever Traxler, USFWS

While many Americans were scrambling to file their returns during the last week of tax season, on Monday, April 8, I was out with a small group of rescuers saving an 800-pound leatherback turtle.

I was called at about 8 a.m. by Dr. Jonathon Gorham of In Water Research Group, Inc. (IRG). He told me a leatherback sea turtle was in the St. Lucie Florida Power and Light (FPL) power plant intake canal. He asked me to help with the capture. Given my love and respect for wildlife and previous experiences with these captures, it was a no-brainer.

leatherback_rescue_poseA successful rescue involves a cooperative group! (Photo: USFWS)

IRG has the contract to capture sea turtles that come into the power plant intake canal. Annually this ranges from 200 – 950 sea turtles including loggerheads, green, hawksbill, Kemps Ridley and leatherbacks, but primarily loggerheads and green sea turtles. IRG has 2 - 5 person daily staff at the power plant. Leatherbacks are the largest turtles, so when moving one, as many people as possible is a good thing. So, after Jonathon called, I asked fellow Service biologists and friends Brian Powell, Patrick Pitts and Steve Schubert to go down to the plant and help.

We arrived by 9:15.

Once at the canal, we received a safety briefing from the FPL staff. All of the potential threats of handling a 600 - 1200-pound animal were discussed and Jonathan was put in charge of capturing and moving the giant reptile.

The turtle was very cooperative and swam into the corner of the canal. Three IRG staff members, Ryan, Jeff and Jonathon quickly entered the water and captured the turtle. Patrick, Steve, Brian and I helped guide the turtle into the sling, helped move it out of the water and then connected the sling by two harness straps to the crane. The crane lifted the turtle and then moved it up the hill, while we ensured the leatherback stayed safely in the sling.

leatherback_slingGetting the turtle in the sling was no easy feat! (Photo: USFWS)

The turtle was lowered onto a trailer, measurements taken and a tracking tag inserted under its skin. This was the first time this particular turtle had been captured. The crane operator estimated its weight at 820 pounds. Once measurements and tagging were completed, the trailer was backed over the dune and the turtle was released onto the beach, before making its way back the ocean. We all breathed a proud sigh of triumphant relief as it swam away unscathed and possibly a little bit grateful for the assist.

Jonathan thanked me and the other Service staffers for our volunteer effort, saying we were a big help and our quick arrival made it possible to ensure the turtle was saved in a timely fashion.

This was by far the quickest and safest leatherback capture and release I’ve experienced. It was a great day to be a Service biologist in South Florida -- and it sure beat the heck out of filing a tax return!

Stever Traxler is with the South Florida Ecological Services Office in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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